Dragon Encounters

Making dnd combat fun, finding monsters that fit together, monster tactics and strategies, and other ways of using the monsters of dungeons and dragons

Prisoners of a Dragon:

This is the first of a series of articles presenting encounters involving low-level PCs and an adult chromatic dragon. There will be one of these articles to go along with almost every chromatic dragon in the Monster Manual.

In setting this encounter, an NPC has been taken prisoner by the adult black dragon, and the PCs have been charged to rescue them. Perhaps it’s a princess that the dragon has kidnapped, and the king offered a reward. It can also be a mage, or someone whose abilities and/or knowledge are desperately needed to help deal with a different threat, such as the main questline.

(If they have magic or combat powers, I suggest that they not be in a position to be able to use them, so that they don’t inadvertently overshadow the PCs. Perhaps they’re too weak/exhausted from a long captivity, perhaps they’ve been spelled to not have their magic available.)

When the players attempt to rescue them, they end up getting taken captive themselves. This shouldn’t be too hard to arrange. Put the prisoner where they can get to them, with just enough difficulty that they won’t realize the trap, then when they arrive the dragon will land next to them soon after they’ll be trapped.

If they try to fight it, the dragon should be able to take them out in short order. Perhaps have it take down the healer last so it can order him/her to stabilize them before they can fail their death saves. If you position the dragon correctly, they shouldn’t be able to run without getting knocked out by an opportunity attack, and you can use the dragon’s fear to further frustrate attempts if they try. If any of them do get away, the dragon can track them down via scent. (Presented in the statblock as blindsight.)

Similarly, if only some of them attempted the rescue, the dragon will probably notice the others if they’re anywhere nearby. Most likely, it will demand that they reveal themselves, or they’re companions lives will be forfeit. If they still remain hidden, it will knock the already captured PCs unconscious and then track down and capture the remaining PCs manually. Under the circumstances, I would pass on having it carry out its threat to kill some of the PCs. It can exalt how merciful its being, and also lament on how sad it is that they are so uncaring of their companion’s lives.

The first part of this adventure is when the dragon decides to play with them. It will put them into a hazardous situation, pretending that it’s just leaving them somewhere safe for the night, or even pretending that it’s letting them go. Afterwards, it will show up, recapturing them if necessary, and either act shocked at the thought that they were in danger, or pretend not to believe that they even were in danger. (Its lies aren’t meant to be believable; they’re meant to be nasty, infuriating.)

I would like to post a disclaimer that this article is meant to be mean, sadistic. It will be very annoying for many players, and you should decide carefully before running it. The reason for the prisoner is to hopefully make it a little less infuriating, but making the prisoner the main target. (The other dragon adventures won’t be this way. This was what best fit the black dragon.)

At the end, I’ll discuss how to go about letting the PCs finally escape, and an epilogue in which they finally get revenge on the dragon.

Attempts at Murder, or the Dragon’s Games

Below are four different ways that the dragon will attempt to finish them off. You can run them in any order.

You probably aren’t going to run all of them, I would suggest at most three of them. Choose the ones that seem to fit you and your players best.

Number 1) The dragon places them in a pit, telling them that it has to go somewhere (provide a little more detail) and it’s placing them somewhere where they’ll be safe for the night, because there are scary monsters out there, and it doesn’t want them to get hurt while it’s gone. It apologizes that it doesn’t have a ladder, but reassures them that the floor is soft. Then it tosses them all in.

In actuality, the floor of the pit is already covered by an ooze, which will attack them as soon as they enter. Of the oozes in the Monster Manual, a black pudding or gelatinous cube will be the most interesting, but also the hardest. The black pudding will do continues damage to them every turn, the gelatinous cube will have a chance to engulf all of them right at the beginning of the combat. I would suggest that you increase the black pudding’s CR by one, and the gelatinous cube’s CR by two, due to the situation.

Any oozes will be a challenge, however, as they won’t be able to keep any PCs out of range, except perhaps by climbing onto the walls, and that will restrict their ability to fight back or cast spells. They also might not realize what’s going on right away. You can just narrate it that the water or mud of the floor, or the floor itself, reached up and attacked them.

You can also use more than one ooze, if running this with higher level players. I would suggest that in such a case the oozes be presented as a single creature, as the PCs won’t be able to distinguish between them. You’ll decide which ooze took damage from each attack, either by rolling or based on position. For what it’s worth, the oozes don’t have the ability to choose targets either, in their case because their intelligence stat is 1. (This is also how I’d run multiple swarms, by the way.)

End: The dragon lets them out of the pit the next morning. He might be surprised to see them alive, but he quickly recovers. He either acts shocked that there was an ooze in there (“Who knew?”) or calls it a nightmare and comments on how muddy they are.

Number 2) The dragon announces that decided that it isn’t right to keep other beings in captivity, and that he’s letting them go. Then he leaves them on a small island in the middle of the swamp, during a pouring rainstorm, and assures them that they’re free to go where they’d like. They, of course, have to seek shelter if they’re to survive. I would suggest running it in the following three stages:

  1. As they step onto the muddy ground, and start wondering where to go next, some monster attacks them. The fight will give you some chance to introduce mentions of the pouring rain, freezing wind, the chill, and the general need for shelter without your ramming it down their throats.
  2. They have to cross the river, as there is no shelter on the island. If they don’t act on that after you describe to them the lack of shelter and the need to move, you can describe that the island is getting washed away under them, as the rain washes away the dirt and threatens to collapse the island. When crossing the river, keep in mind the quick waters, loose and/or slippery rocks, and darkness (Chances are at least one of them doesn’t have darkvision. They all need to cross.)
  3. The other side can be forest, mountain, or you can give them the choice. I’d probably let them find anything they think to look for, perhaps putting it in hard to access places if I feel that they’re getting too lucky or if they flub the DC [most likely survival, but depends on what] by too large an amount. If they absolutely can’t figure out what to do, either have the NPC help them, or let them find an abandoned cabin or cave or such.

If they’re failing to react, you can give them a CON check, with the ones that fail taking a level of exhaustion. This is especially useful for stage 3, where the cold weather is the only remaining issue.

You could also use it earlier once or twice, to make the cold more substantial. The only issue is if they have a berserker barbarian, since he takes exhaustion due to his subclass giving him further exhaustion might be very limiting. Then again, it is a CON check, which barbarians are good at.

End: The dragon shows up, and takes them prisoner again. He tells them that he was missing them so much, he couldn’t bear to be parted from them any longer.

Number 3) he locks them in an old, wooden building. On the way out, he “accidently” breaks the lantern with his tail, spilling the oil and spreading the flame throughout the building. The have to –

  1. Quickly break free of whatever restraints the dragon placed them in (cage, chains, ropes, whatever.
  2. Make their way across the burning floor, as that’s between them and the exit. This involves flames, smoke inhalation, and a floor that might not be strong enough to bear their weight.
  3. Find a way to break down the door without causing the wall to collapse on them and bury them. This will also add danger until they escape, as the door being opened will fan the flames.

End: You can already guess how this goes by now. The dragon is happy to see them, horrified by what its “Carelessness” almost caused, and will reassure them that it will be much more careful with them going forward.

Number 4) the dragon “Asks” (Really, tells) them that they’re going to sort through loose dirt or such for a certain type of items that got mixed in. The dragon additionally offers that if they can find all of them within a certain time period, he’ll let them go free afterwards.

 Making the task difficult is the fact that a large number of poisonous snakes also got mixed into the dirt. To keep the PCs safe, he hands each of them a potion of snake repellent, but he deliberately misses handing a potion to at least one of them. To make it clear that the dragon is doing it deliberately, have it hand them out, ask if everybody got one, then comment about hearing some faint voice when the players try to let the dragon know that he didn’t give to one of them.

I would probably use a number of swarms of poisonous snakes [roughly] equal to the players’ level. The potions will act as repellent, stopping the snakes from biting them, so that they don’t do poison or piercing damage to the PCs who drink potions.

When using one potion less than number of players, I would give the snakes the ability to climb and burrow, in order to keep the players from putting one PC on another one’s shoulders and keeping him safe that way. This will allow them to climb up the PC holding the other one up, or to burrow up to the ceiling and start dropping on him. In addition, getting through the dirt in the time limit the dragon gave them might require all of them pitching in, and this takes two people out of the equation.

End: The logical end of this is that the players can’t produce the number of items the dragon set, because there aren’t actually that many item in the pile. (The reason I didn’t use gold pieces is so the players don’t make up the number by donating their own gold.) Ideally, there should be exactly one too little (although that does open up a risk that the players will find a way to create an item magically).

Be aware that this will make your players even more angry than the other ideas in this article will. It’s possible that they won’t be aware (this is another reason that you might want them to be short by more than one), and you don’t have to tell them, especially right afterwards. If they are getting angry, this might be a good time for them to escape. They can discover a tunnel if they didn’t have any ideas of their own.  

Eventually they’ll manage to escape. There is an excellent chance that they’ll come up with something themselves, and you can hurry it along by having the dragon be just careless enough to give them what they need. I would guess that they will come up with a plan by the second time the dragon tries to kill them. If the plan requires time to set into motion, you might be able to get away with a third, having it happen before they manage to complete plan, but you might also want to just go along with it and end it at two tries.

It’s possible that they’ll manage after just one try to kill them, or before the first try. You can probably ensure that the first one happens just by springing it on them before they manage to finalize their plans. If they try to escape before the second attempt, then I would tell you to judge their plan based on merit. If its good enough, you might want to make do with just one attempt, otherwise you can foil it and hope that they’ll come up with on either better plan (or give them a way to make their original plan work after all.)

If they haven’t managed to escape by the third attempt, you would be advised to help them. Perhaps they find a map in the wooden building (number 3) or on possession of a corpse in the pit (number 1) or on the island (number 2). The map could tell of a hidden mine shaft nearby that they can escape into if they can reach it. An invisibility potion could also help, although as that will only grant one of them invisibility, they’ll have to use it carefully.

Part 2: After they escape, they are going to want revenge. This is to let them get it.

The shrine

The short version of the following idea is that they make their way to a shrine, where they are temporarily given the power needed to defeat the dragon. As they approach the shrine, the dragon sees them, they’re forced to race for the shrine, and then they defeat the dragon and kill it.

There are several ways this can happen. The party can make their way to the shrine, knowing that the dragon will be coming after them, and seeking some way to ensure their survival. Possible, the NPC they rescued knows of the shrine, and gives them the advice to go there. If you take this option, you’ll have to imply that the shrine can give power to be used at a distance from the shrine. After all, they don’t know when they set out to go there that they’d fight the dragon there.

The standard problem is that then they’ll want to use it all the time. To solve this, you might have to have the shrine warn them that helping them will drain the shrine of power for considerable time, perhaps a hundred years. If the dragon wasn’t right at their heels, it would use a smaller amount of power to give advice, find a magic that can help them, or set in motion a ceremony magic that would help them while using less magic.

(Saying that it can’t help anybody more than once won’t work, as PCs die/retire and get replaced.)

You could also have them be hunting for the shrine for a different purpose. Perhaps they hope to use it for teleportation, to escape from the dragon. Perhaps they were seeking it for some reason connected to the main quest. Learning the location could even be why they had to save the NPC from the dragon in the first place.

If you take this approach, you can have the shrine’s power be limited to the location of the shrine. It might be able to provide information about the world beyond it, or teleport people to a location, but it can’t give powers meant to work away from the shrine. This already limits its ability to interfere in the future.

If you want to go further, the shrine doesn’t have to be able to provide information outside itself. If you want to give the players information through it, just say that the particular information they want was entrusted to it. If you want to limit teleportation, put distance limits, or limit its precision, meaning that they won’t always land exactly on target.

Reaching the Shrine

(Note: it makes a lot of sense to have difficulties on the way to the shrine. I’m going to start with when the players are close to the shrine, because the obstacles beforehand don’t have any bearing on the dragon, and can be of any type.)

As they approach the shrine, the dragon spots them. Perhaps it’s coincidence, it just happened to be in the area. Perhaps it was hunting them, and finally caught up. Or perhaps it knew of the shrine, and was lying in wait. Either way, the dragon has seen them, and while it is still a distance away, it is closing the distance fast. (I would say, within 3-5 rounds.) The players’ only hope is to reach the shrine, but there are still a few obstacles between them. (Suggestions below.)

You might want the requirements to be that only one of them needs reach the shrine. Once that one reaches it, the shrines magic recognizes them, and will reach out to the rest of them. This will make it a lot easier for them, and will let they use ways past the obstacles that would be too time consuming if all of them need to use them.

There are three types of obstacles that you might use. I would suggest using two, one each from different lists. Below are ideas, as well as some ways they might solve them. (To give you a better handle of how to run them.)

Type 1. Obstacles that they would have to face anyway. Among them: 

  • A rock face, or a wall, that needs climbing. (They might be able to boost one of their members up, and then lower a rope. They might push a nearby boulder nearer to the cliff, and use it to stand on. Assuming that there aren’t trees right next to the wall, they could climb a further tree, and then use a large tree branch that they’ll have to cut off the tree as a bridge. If they have destruction spells like shatter, they can hit the wall with it and thereby create footing.)
  • A magical plant that induces tiredness or nausea. (The simple answer is CON checks, with them being slowed to half-speed, plus disadvantage on other skill checks, should they fail. Ways to avoid include placing a strong-smelling flower near your face, with a harder version being to introduce [earlier] a sap that smells while burning, or some incense. Setting a fire where it will spread will also work. [The plants are too spread out to be targeted with a single spell.] Having a PC with good CON save proficiency carry or guide the PCs who aren’t. Tying the plant to an arrow and shooting it at the dragon will help against the dragon.)
  • An illusion protecting the shrine (they obviously don’t know that it’s an illusion. Have it dodge their attacks, if it’s the illusion of a creature, and let them guess why their spells keep failing. An illusion of a wall or other obstacle will also work.)
  • A guardian that they’re meant to fight, but will need to get past without fighting due to having the dragon at their heels. (I would use a humanoid, giant, or construct. If you don’t want the players to just rush past it, you can give it the ability to knock targets prone, or the sentinel feet, where hitting with an attack of opportunity causes the target to lose all remaining movement. You could even use a pair of guardians if you want to make it really hard. I would not give the guardian a grapple ability, as that will make it too hard.)

These obstacles are all formidable, and the dragon’s presence will mean that they have to surmount the obstacles quickly.

Type 1a. You can also make it so that these obstacles are only obstacles because they’re pressed by the dragon. Perhaps the wall/defense around the shrine has an entrance on the other side, but they don’t have time to go around. Perhaps the guardian lets people who are worthy past, but his tests are time-consuming.

Perhaps there is an elaborate staircase path leading down that snakes back and forth over great distance. With the dragon right behind them, following it would be fatal, so they have to instead scale the cliffs down. (Make sure they know this.)

(The first two are variations on ideas already discussed above. The last can be solved by tossing down a leafy tree or leafy bush, or the corpse of a monster they killed right before the dragon showed up [example: owlbear] so that they have something soft to land on. A different solution is to have the strongest PC drop, after sliding most of the way on rope. He’ll take damage, but he should survive, and then he can catch the others.)

With all these, make sure to have several ideas of how they could overcome them. If you don’t have several ideas, chances are that your players won’t manage to come up with one. Even with multiple ideas, be aware that you might have to “rescue” your players by letting them discover a cave leading in, through which the dragon can’t follow.

Type 2. Obstacles the dragon causes. At the point, they’re closer to the shrine, and the dragon will be trying to prevent them reaching it. Among different things it can do:

If there is a bridge, have it use its acid breath to take down the bridge before they reach it, or while they’re on it. Solutions: knock down a tree and use it as a bridge. Slide down on a rope [assuming chasm and not river] and climb up on the far side, using the remains of the bridge. Grapple a water animal and force it to carry them across the river, using magic to communicate. [assuming river and not chasm.] Once one PC is across, they can anchor a rope. Shoot an arrow with a rope attached and climb across on the rope.

If the area is a canyon or forested, it might not have room to land. Let it thrash around with its tail, bringing boulders or heavy branches down on them. (Basically, just damage, but they can figure out ways to mislead the dragon as to their location, especially if the dragon is causing dust to billow up. If using a canyon, this will require branching paths to exist. The rubble can also hamper movement somewhat, making misleading the dragon even more important.)

If you want, you could even have it land in front of them, cutting them off. If you do this, make certain there are places to hide, so that they can sneak around.

Type 3: Once they reach the shrine, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shrine will choose to help them. (I’m picturing the shrine as having a spirit personality/guardian. If you prefer to have the shrine be a place, with no type of intelligence, go ahead.) Since they obviously can’t have a proper conversation with a dragon bearing down on them, I would suggest that the shrine places them into a sort of vision, during which time will be paused (or move really slowly) in the real world.

One way to handle the shrine’s decision would be by bargaining. The shrine will ask them to agree to do something for it in return. As they don’t have an option to refuse, you could give them choice by giving them multiple options. If you want to make it less selfish, present it as proof of their worthiness, or say that the rule of the shrine is that anyone taking from it must commit to give back in equal measure. As part of committing, they have to decide on a specific commitment.

(Note: You might let them bargain the shrine down, if they can show that they’re need is worthy of being helped. I would decide before them game whether I’m open to being bargained down, and to what extent. Players tend to gang up on DMs and get away with too much, otherwise.)

A different way for the shrine to decide whether to help them is by cross examining them about previous actions and/or what they would do in hypothetical situations. I already wrote about this approach in my planatar article. In this case, you’ll have to let them win. Either that, or use bargaining for which favor they’ll owe, as mentioned above, be the shrine’s back-up. Perhaps it finds them somewhat worthy, but not worthy enough to merit being helped for free.

The Final Battle

Once the shrine agrees to help them, you still have to finish off the dragon. I suppose the shrine could zap it with a death-ray equivalent, or turn the dragon into a toad, but that will be somewhat counter climatic. Also, the players will want to take it down themselves.

I would have the shrine boost the players abilities to the extent that they can defeat it in a fair fight. Here is how to do that.

  1. Before you can start, the players recover all HP, are cured of all conditions, and regain all spell slots, rages, ki points, and so on. (The dragon does not.)
  2. Boost their HP. Drastically. I would suggest + 80-90 for melee classes (d10 classes), and 60-70 for casters (d8 classes). Alternatively, triple their HP for this combat. (This is for level 5. For lower levels, add 10 HP for each level under 5. If multiplying, multiply by 3 1/2.)
  3. All damage that they do gets boosted, doing double during this battle. If they aren’t level 5, give them an extra attack. (In this case, the spellcasters get the spell slots that they would have if they were level 5. They won’t have the spells for them, but they can use them to cast the level 2 spells with a slight boost. Also, this way they’ll have extra spell slots for their level 2 spells.)
  4. I would also give them + 2 to hit, and + AC.
  5. Finally, you’ll have to either give them flight or ground the dragon. The melee can’t participate enough otherwise.

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About Me

I have been a DM for several years, and I was designing home RPG games since my young childhood. I have been a fan of many different types of games (computer, board, RPG, and more) and have designed several for my own entertainment. This is my first attempt to produce game content for a wider audience.